OPINION: Empower small governments to achieve social justice

The San Francisco City Hall building lit up blue and white at night.
(Courtesy: Dllu, via Wikimedia Commons)

With people pulling down Confederate statues, the Supreme Court laying down big national decisions and every state handling the pandemic differently, it’s time we talk a little bit about local authority versus federal authority — and why empowering small governments representing communities of color could be a way to create a more just system.

We all know the classic argument for a strong centralized government: big governments supposedly keep smaller internal governments from having the leeway to oppress groups within their populations. Possibly the most famous example of this principle in action was the federal government’s elimination of state-passed discriminatory Jim Crow laws via legislation like the Civil Rights Act of 1964

However, especially on the left-leaning side of the political spectrum, we rarely hear arguments that support the allocation of power to small local governments. Throwback to U.S. history class: the original idea behind local-based governing was to protect ideological dissenters from tyranny of the majority and to let communities of a feather govern themselves based on their individual value systems. We need to consider those same ideas to protect the voices of people and communities of color as we attempt to create a less oppressive society today. 

Given America’s current state of segregation, there are many small communities of color whose voices get drowned out in the ocean that is big government and a largely white population. This results in policies that benefit those white majorities. 

Giving communities of color power to govern themselves ensures that local policy works to their needs. It also prevents potentially oppressive governments from giving communities of color the short end of the stick, as we have so often seen

People of color are often drowned out in majority-white spaces. Empowering small communities of color would fix that. 

Obviously, the best solution to this problem would be the full inclusion of people of color in these kinds of conversations. However, given the reality of American segregation, that’s not a solution for right now. In the long term, America’s goal should be to have a diverse and anti-oppressive society that has no need for extra measures to make sure people of color are heard by their governments. For now, the best move is empowering communities of color instead of drowning out their voices that are speaking up for their needs. 

Because they are not heard on the local level, when it comes to wider national political conversations, people of color are also prevented from speaking on a larger platform, and we end up with national policies that do not serve marginalized communities. On the flip side, empowering small communities can have a big impact on national politics. Local government policy is a powerful mode of speech; it’s speech by example. Putting ideas into practice on a small scale forces people on the outside to take notice. 

For example, we can look at Minneapolis’ recent quest to abolish its police force. Although police abolition was arguably already on the national agenda, Minneapolis made headlines that caused other cities like New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington DC and San Francisco to seriously consider following suit. When Minneapolis’ Black community was not empowered to speak because their voices were drowned out by systemic racism in the wider overwhelmingly white population of Minneapolis, the city’s policies on policing did not work for the city’s Black community. By forcing their small group to be heard, Minneapolis’ Black community played a big role in changing the national conversation about policing. 

Another case of speech by example is with Massachussetts and San Francisco’s decisions to allow same-sex couples to marry. In the years before these two small governments enacted their decisions, supporters of gay marriage had been exercising their First Amendment rights very strongly — to no avail. In 2004 when the state and city took action, the nation was forced to consider the issue of same sex marriage in a way it hadn’t before. It was likely thanks to this action that support for gay marriage saw a huge spike in 2004

In both of these cases, the policy of small governments influenced the nation, and that policy was brought about by individuals whose voices were drowned out on the main stage. Local government was what allowed them to speak to the nation. Minneapolis, Massachusetts and San Francisco were able to make these changes because they have governments small enough that they have to listen to pockets of constituents who do not have a voice in larger scale government. 

Of course, simply empowering communities of color power isn’t a perfect solution. I simply ask that we consider it as an alternative approach to trying to go through a large centralized government to enact anti-racist and anti-oppressive policies. Big change is the ultimate goal, and the two modes of change-making aren’t mutually exclusive, but pushing for huge universal anti-oppressive policies isn’t the way to go if we want to be effective quickly. 

So, consider letting minorities decide what’s best for themselves. Consider giving previously silenced people a platform to speak loudly to the entire country. In short, consider empowering local governments. 

Margot Rosenblatt SC ’23 is from Manhattan, New York. She loves America, freedom, democracy and civil liberties. She especially loves that, when it comes to adapting the government to fit the times, the framers designed the Constitution for us to wing it as we go.

This article was last updated August 21, 2020 at 10:55 a.m. to correct an error in the author name.

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